Ready or not, VLJs are here

 - November 7, 2006, 5:27 AM

There are 12 very light jets currently in development, in flight-test or recently certified. Nearly all are clean-sheet designs, which typically consume more money and time than do derivatives, illustrating the faith manufacturers (and would-be manufacturers) have in this emerging market.

Although these all-new designs tend to delay schedules at established and start-up manufacturers alike, start-ups are more vulnerable to delays because funding can–and sometimes does–run out. Fortunately, funding for aviation start-ups is becoming easier to find, though this turnaround came too late for Avocet Aircraft, which folded earlier this year. Avocet was developing the ProJet VLJ.

On September 8, Cessna’s VLJ, the Citation Mustang, took the checkered flag in the certification race by earning a full type certificate, lacking only approval for flight into known icing. Eclipse followed close on its heels, achieving certification for its Eclipse 500 on September 30. No doubt, the service entry of VLJs will be an important event for business aviation, given their low entry prices and proposed innovative applications such as air-limo service.

Adam A700

Adam Aircraft is optimistic that its A700 very light jet will receive FAA certification early next year. The A700 shares 65-percent commonality with Adam’s A500 centerline-thrust piston twin, which obtained FAA approval last May. Of the 250 FAA certification reports required for A700 approval, 75 are exact copies of those already submitted and approved for the A500; 100 are modified A500 reports; and 75 are all-new reports.

Three A700s are now flying, with a fourth–the first one destined to be delivered to a customer–expected to come online late this year or early next year. This fourth aircraft will be used to conduct function and reliability testing.

The next delivery slot for one of the $2.25 million cabin-class VLJs is the second quarter of 2008. Adam has firm orders for 276 A700s, of which 65 are for individual customers and 212 are for fleet operators (including the order for 75 aircraft from air-limo hopeful Pogo).

ATG Javelin

Aviation Technology Group earlier this year announced several design changes to its two-place Javelin twinjet, including an increase in wing size, enhancement of wing high-lift devices and improvement of the canopy opening mechanism. Englewood, Colo.-based ATG anticipates that these will be the last major changes to the Javelin design, as the company is freezing its configuration to enable suppliers to start building production airframe parts.

To reduce the stall speed, ATG increased the Williams FJ33-powered twinjet’s wingspan by 1.85 feet and the wing area by 29 sq ft. The wings were further enhanced with Fowler flaps and leading-edge flaps. The company expects these wing improvements to yield a five- to seven-knot reduction in stall speed, to 90 knots.

ATG engineers also selected an aft-hinged canopy mechanism to replace the less conventional side-opening arrangement. According to the company, removal of the side hinges gives the new canopy a more aerodynamic profile, enables open-canopy ground operations in wind speeds of up to 40 knots and allows Javelin pilots to taxi with improved visibility and cockpit ventilation. ATG said changes to the wing and canopy have raised the mtow to 6,900 pounds (from 6,200 pounds, an increase of more than 10 percent) and decreased cruise speed from 520 knots to 500 knots. Certification of the $2.795 million Javelin is pegged for late 2008.

Cessna Citation Mustang

Cessna became the first company to certify a VLJ when it obtained FAA certification of its $2.6 million Mustang twinjet on September 8. The approval is a full type certificate minus only flight into known icing, which Cessna expects to achieve soon. It is not unusual for OEMs to certify an aircraft without the icing approval and then later conduct the required tests to allow such operations as the icing season arrives. EASA approval is expected in the second quarter of next year.

Cessna said the type certificate includes approval for single-pilot operation, day/night and VFR/IFR operations and reduced vertical separation minimums. The Mustang approval also covers GPS WAAS on the Garmin G1000 avionics suite, as well as a new feature called SafeTaxi, which provides on the multifunction display a graphical representation of the aircraft’s ground position in the airport environment. According to Cessna, the G1000-equipped Citation Mustang is one of the first aircraft certified to take advantage of WAAS navigation features, including lateral performance with vertical guidance approach and WAAS vertical navigation.

Diamond D-Jet

The Diamond D-Jet (S/N 001) single-engine very light jet flew for the first time on April 18 from London International Airport in Ontario, Canada, home of Diamond’s North American division. After initial flight-testing in late April, the D-Jet underwent installation of its data acquisition system and minor modifications to the engine inlet fairings before flight testing resumed. In a series of flight tests in late June, the speed and altitude envelopes were progressively expanded from 170 knots and 12,000 feet to more than 280 knots and 25,000 feet.

The five-seat Williams FJ33-4-powered jet’s preliminary specifications include a 5,071-pound mtow, 315-knot max cruise speed, 25,000-foot ceiling and a 1,351-nm range. The D-Jet will come standard with a three-screen Garmin G1000 avionics system.

In late July, Diamond announced that the single-engine Diamond D-Jet is getting a parachute recovery system from St. Paul, Minn.-based Ballistic Recovery Systems. BRS officials said the initial system is expected to operate at airspeeds and altitudes that would allow a safe recovery of the D-Jet and its occupants after engine failure or a low-altitude emergency.

Certification of the D-Jet has slipped from late next year to the second quarter of 2008. Additionally, the jet’s price climbed to $1.36 million when the manufacturer  included previously optional items as standard equipment. Diamond claims orders for some 125 D-Jets.

Eclipse 500

While Albuquerque, N.M.-based Eclipse announced FAA provisional certification of its Eclipse 500 on July 27 at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., it didn’t receive “initial” FAA type certification in time to beat Cessna to the finish line. The FAA defines provisional certification as an “intent to certify soon,” meaning it is not actual certification under which aircraft could be delivered to customers. Eclipse had hoped to receive type certification for the Eclipse 500 by August 30, and it finally achieved formal FAA approval on September 30.

According to the start-up company, the initial TC includes day/night, VFR/IFR, single-pilot and RVSM operations, though the Eclipse’s initial avionics functionality is limited. Eclipse said the FMS, moving map, weather radar and GPS WAAS functions for its Avidyne Avio avionics system are expected to be available this month, while autothrottle, e-checklists, TCAS, TAWS and satellite weather software won’t be ready for another 5 to 11 months. The company mainly blamed Avidyne as the cause of the avionics functionality setbacks.

Embraer Phenom 100

This summer Embraer cut the first metal for its Phenom 100 very light jet, and now the jet is well under construction. First flight is scheduled for the first quarter of next year, with certification of the $2.85 million twinjet planned for mid-2008.

According to Embraer, the main structure of the Phenom 100, and the larger Phenom 300 derivative, will be built from aluminum alloy and the secondary surfaces from composite materials, contributing significantly to the light weight of the aircraft. Final assembly, interior completion, painting and flight testing of the Phenom jets will take place at Embraer’s Gavião Peixoto facility.

As of June 1, the price of the eight-seat, 1,160-nm (four occupants) very light twinjet increased to $2.85 million from $2.75 million. Embraer said it has orders for 325 Phenoms, which includes both the Phenom 100 and 300.

Eviation EV-20

The twinjet derivative of the former VisionAire Vantage is progressing, though not quite as quickly as the company expected. First flight has been delayed from this past February to late this year, though the critical design review was completed earlier this year. It’s now estimated that construction of a conforming airplane at Eviation’s São José dos Campos, Brazil facility is under way. Brazilian certification is to occur late next year, with reciprocal FAA approval to follow shortly thereafter.

Wind-tunnel tests prompted Eviation to alter the tail to a T-tail configuration. The price of the EV-20 has jumped from about $2.25 million to $2.95 million. According to Eviation officials, the company is partially funded through certification and is still seeking investors.

Excel-Jet Sport-Jet

The sole Sport-Jet prototype crashed while taking off from Colorado Springs Airport late last year. According to the NTSB, the single-engine VLJ was substantially damaged–“both landing-gear assemblies separated, the left wing was crushed and bent aft at mid-span and the horizontal stabilizer was crushed.” Fortunately, pilot James Stewart and mechanic John Welty received only minor injuries.

Tower controllers told the NTSB that “the airplane departed [11,022-foot-long] Runway 17R, became airborne only momentarily and then impacted the runway and surrounding terrain.” Several witnesses reported that at approximately 15 feet above the ground, “the airplane rolled hard to the left and began to cartwheel down the runway.” The airplane came to rest 3,000 feet down the runway.

Bob Bornhofen, president of Excel-Jet (developer of the Sport-Jet), hasn’t yet said how this accident would affect the Sport-Jet program or its planned mid-2008 certification, but the company “has suspended work” until further notice. The VLJ had logged 25 hours since first flying in mid-May.

Honda HondaJet

Two weeks after Honda revealed its long-gestating commercial plans for the HondaJet on July 25, the Japanese company established a wholly owned subsidiary–Honda Aircraft–that will develop, market and produce the engine-over-the-wing very light twinjet. The new company will be based at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C., where the HondaJet prototype was assembled and has been flying since Dec. 3, 2003.

Honda Aircraft will begin taking orders for the composite-fuselage, aluminum-wing airplane here at the NBAA Convention. Honda officials said the HondaJet will cost less than $4 million. Honda Aircraft plans soon to develop a production version of the HondaJet so it can pursue both type and production certification in 2009 or 2010. The jet will be certified under FAR Part 23.

The seven-seat HondaJet prototype has logged nearly 300 hours during flight testing and has been flown to FL430 and 412 knots. According to Honda, the airplane is “on course” to meet or exceed all of its design specifications.

Millennium Foxjet

Tony Fox, the 84-year-old entrepreneur some credit with being the father of the very light jet, in May sold the 1970s-era Foxjet design to start-up Millennium Aerospace of California. The six-seat, 1,400-nm Foxjet was announced in 1977, but it was shelved in the early 1980s when the U.S. Air Force selected its Williams WR44-800 fanjet (the predecessor to the now-certified FJ44) for an air-launched cruise missile and the government denied any nonmilitary use of the engine. When a suitable high-bypass fanjet became available again, Fox did not have the time or financial resources to supervise the airplane project.

Now, Fox is “convinced” that Millennium Aerospace has what it takes to get the very light jet airborne. He has agreed to serve as a consultant as the Foxjet moves toward certification.

“The Foxjet practically defines the very light jet category, and we expect it to appeal to a large part of that new market,” noted Millennium Aerospace president Robert Swanson. “One thing we won’t change is the name. Foxjet is a catchy name, and more important, we consider it a fitting, permanent tribute to Tony Fox, whose vision was years ahead of the industry.”

Swanson said his company has taken a few Foxjet orders, though Millennium will begin marketing and “serious” order-taking after the show. Millennium has not yet released any price estimates for the Foxjet.

Spectrum 33

Cardiff by the Sea, Calif.-based Spectrum Aeronautical is vowing to press ahead with the Spectrum 33 program, despite the fatal crash of its sole prototype on July 25. The airplane crashed on the side of the runway while taking off from Spanish Fork Airport, Utah, killing the two test pilots–Spectrum director of flight operations Glenn Maben and vice director Nathan Forrest.

“The crash deeply saddened us all,” Spectrum president Austin Blue said, though the loss of the prototype “is not going to set us back, since we already gained relevant data from the prototype before the accident.” FAA certification is planned for early 2009.

One week after the crash, the NTSB released a detailed preliminary report that stopped just short of issuing a probable cause. According to the Safety Board, witnesses said the airplane entered a right roll almost immediately after takeoff. The roll continued to about 90 degrees right-wing-down and the right wingtip hit the ground.

The NTSB found no evidence of any pre-existing failures of the airplane’s structure. However, “examination of the translation linkage on the aft side of the aft pressure bulkhead revealed that it was connected in a manner that reversed the roll control…the linkage was connected such that left roll input from the sidesticks would have deflected the ailerons to produce right roll of the airplane, and right roll input from the sidesticks would have deflected the ailerons to produce left roll of the airplane.”

Between June 30 and the July accident flight, the Spectrum 33 prototype underwent maintenance to stiffen its main landing-gear legs. Due to insufficient clearance, the aileron upper torque-tube V-bracket had to be redesigned, which entailed the removal of a portion of the translation linkage.

“The nature of the accident didn’t call the Spectrum 33’s design characteristics into question,” Blue said. The next test aircraft will be closer to a “production configuration” and will be designed to ensure that the controls can never be misrigged, he noted. This aircraft is expected to fly next year.

Tam-Air Epic Elite Jet

Epic Aircraft parent Aircraft Investor Resources and Republic of Georgia-based Tbilisi Aviation Machine (TAM) are joining forces to build this $2.1 million very light jet. Under the partnership, Epic Aircraft and TAM will coproduce the twinjet.

TAM will market the all-composite, six-seat VLJ as the Tam-Air Elite Jet in Eastern Europe and Asia, while the U.S.-based start-up will sell it as the Epic Elite Jet in the Americas and Western Europe. The Williams FJ33-4-powered twinjet shares about 80-percent commonality with the Epic LT turboprop single, including the Garmin G1000 avionics system.

First flight of the Elite Jet is expected by next month. Certification is now planned for early 2008, a slight delay from previous estimates.